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Prison's Sudden Changing of the Guard : Picking a New Warden for the Problem-Plagued Lancaster Facility Is a Good Idea

March 06, 1994

A significant management change was definitely in order at the California State Prison in Lancaster. Otis Thurman, it seems, has been given a few future employment options by the state Department of Corrections. Those suggestions apparently do not include staying on as warden of the year-old, problem-plagued prison.

Lancaster residents and elected officials undoubtedly recall that the $207-million, 252-acre, 4,000-inmate facility in west Lancaster was billed as being state-of-the-art and as escape-proof as possible. But the welcome mat also was out because of the effects that the prison's construction and operation would have on a beleaguered local economy.

Since the facility's opening, however, there have been four escapes, two of them involving maximum-security inmates. All the escapees were recaptured, but not without some luck. One inmate who fled by stowing away in a garbage truck, for example, was compacted in a bale of trash and unceremoniously dumped in a local landfill.

And there have been sufficient problems inside the prison to lead to at least a few questions about how well inmates are being managed and controlled. So far, guards have shot and wounded four maximum-security prisoners.

Two of those incidents involved fights between inmates who could not be controlled. Yet another February fracas occurred when nearly a third of the 159 inmates who were being subjected to body and cell searches decided to resist.

Some of the latter might have been adequately explained by prison or corrections officials, but the early months of the Lancaster facility also have been marred by one horrendous public relations problem after another. You'll recall, for example, that it took prison officials two hours to notify local sheriff's deputies about the escape of an inmate serving a life sentence for murder without possibility of parole. Another nine hours passed before the Lancaster City Council was informed.

Equally disconcerting was the report released by Warden Thurman explaining why convicted killer Eric Rene Johnson was able to escape in the first place. Thurman blamed, in part, prison construction deficiencies and the fact that the supervising officer was distracted.

No and no, responded Tip Kindel, state corrections department assistant director, who contradicted the warden and instead blamed staff negligence and procedural inadequacies.

We're not sure which was worse, the gross discrepancy between explanations or the loud silence from the prison following Kindel's remarks. Consider it one more reason why picking a new warden is an eminently sensible idea.

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